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Photo book shows Canon City prisons from day 1
By Mary Jean Porter   - 04/20/2008

The Pueblo Chieftain

More Info on This Book: Prisons of Canon City

CANON CITY - Woodpeckers loved the inmates' bug-infested wooden grave markers, so the burial ground was called Woodpecker Hill.

Located in the Greenwood Cemetery on South First Street, the two sections are the final resting place of about 600 prisoners, though only 350 graves are marked with names or "CSP inmate."

Woodpecker Hill and its history are included in a new book, "Prisons of Canon City," compiled by former Puebloan Victoria R. Newman. Newman is administrative assistant at the Museum of Colorado Prisons in Canon City and has been collecting material for the book for several years.

"Prisons of Canon City" is a history-lover's delight, with black-and-white photos on every page, and long, informative captions. It shows the evolution of the state's prisons from the first built in 1868 and opened in 1871 while Colorado was still a territory, to the site of the future Colorado State Penitentiary II.

The first prison had one building and no fence or surrounding wall. There were no age restrictions so many of the guards were in their 60s or 70s, and there were no women staffers. Canon City didn't formally exist at the time and the town grew up around the prison. Upon Colorado's statehood in 1876, the facility's name was changed to Colorado State Penitentiary.

Newman said she's heard stories but no definitive explanation for why the territorial prison was located in what is now Canon City.

Among the book's many photos are ones showing some of the prisons' more famous inmates. There's Alferd Packer, charged with cannibalism after the half-eaten bodies of five companions were discovered; Packer had led 21 people on a winter trek from Utah into the southwestern Colorado mountains in 1873. Handsome Charles Allison and his four-member gang terrorized New Mexico and Colorado Territory in the late 1800s, and he served nine years in prison, a much shorter term than his 1886 sentence mandated. Sadie Leggett, looking sad and somewhat frightened in her photo, was the first woman to occupy a new, separate cell house inside the prison walls; she served 15 months for the killing of a child and was released in 1895. Anton Woode was 11 when he was sentenced to prison for murdering Denver businessman Joseph Smith while hunting rabbits; Woode wanted Smith's gold pocket watch, and when he was found hiding under his bed with the watch in his pocket, he was sentenced to 25 years. He served from 1893 to 1905.

Prison employees get their due in a chapter titled "We Are All in this Together." In 1871, overseers and turnkeys, as they were called, were paid $25 a month while the warden got $208 a quarter and was appointed by the governor. One early photograph, in which big, bushy mustaches were the style, shows "famous western lawmen" who'd come to the prison to drop off outlaws from distant counties or to see prisoners from their jurisdictions executed for their crimes.

Roy Best, who was warden of Colorado State Penitentiary from 1932 to 1954, loved the limelight, according to the new book. He often posed for photographs - saddling a horse, with a smiling Miss Rodeo Colorado in 1950, in front of the original "two-seater" gas chamber, visiting murderer James Sherbondy in his cell. Best was well-liked by most people, according to the book, but others thought him pompous and overbearing. He was indicted for misappropriation of state funds and violation of prisoners' rights in 1952 and suspended for two years. He was acquitted of all state charges and allowed to return to work but died of a heart attack two days before his scheduled return.

The 1929 riot is covered in the book, as is an escape from death row that took place in 1971 during the annual Music and Blossom Festival. One chapter is devoted to movies made there - "The Big House," "Scarecrow," "The Women of San Quentin," "In Cold Blood" and "Canon City." A youthful Robert Blake posed with then-warden Wayne Patterson on the set for "In Cold Blood" in 1967.

The final chapter is devoted to Canon City's newer prisons, built in the years since 1956.

Newman said her favorite chapter is the one about movies made at the old prison. The inmates' stories are interesting, too, she said. One of them, Nicholas Cowman, who was serving a 35- to 45-year sentence for aggravated robbery in 1962, escaped in 1974 and was missing for more than a year. His body was found at a campsite in California, frozen in his sleeping bag. Another inmate, Pablo Hatch, was listed as an American Indian when he entered prison in May 1896, for murder. His mug shots show long, dark braids. Hatch was placed on death row and taken to the death house in October, but cheated the hangman by dying of consumption, or tuberculosis, before he could be executed.

Newman, who wrote a book last year about Woodpecker Hill and the inmates buried there, said most of the material for "Prisons of Canon City" came from the Museum of Colorado Prisons that's located in the former women's prison. She wrote this new book "because I worked at the prison (in three facilities) and became interested in the history of the prison, which is the history of Canon City. I'd seen all these wonderful pictures at the museum."

"Prisons of Canon City" was published by Arcadia Publishing and the cover price is $19.99. It is available at stores in Canon City and Florence and at Barnes & Noble in Pueblo. Information about the Museum of Colorado Prisons, a nonprofit organization that's not a state entity, is available at www.prisonmuseum.org.

Buy It Now: Prisons of Canon City $19.99

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